Downtown parking concerns falling on deaf ears

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117027560519946.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘(Left to right) Richard May, Reid Montgomery and Steve Ernst. ‘);

Local 880 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hosted a meeting with city officials to discuss solutions to parking problems in their area of downtown Jan. 24.

In addition to being attended by representatives from nearly a dozen businesses in the immediate area, Rockford Community Development Director Reid Montgomery, city traffic engineer Steve Ernst and Commercial Development Coordinator Richard May were present to answer questions.

Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) did not attend because he was in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Montgomery reported a study had been commissioned to come up with recommendations as to how much parking is needed, and where it should be located.

The businesses represented at the meeting are urging the city to sell them the gravel lot next to SEIU’s union hall at 204 N. Church St., former site of the Lincoln Hotel.

The city, however, has other plans for the property.

“I’m just not sure that there’s a vision of that property’s long-term best use as a surface parking lot,” Montgomery relayed.

“The problem is we’re running out of surface, and we gotta build up,” Ernst interjected, implying this would not be the ideal location for a parking lot. “We’re looking at having to build more decks.”

Although some business owners estimated an additional 40 parking spots, Ernst said the lot in question would yield only 25.

Asked what the appraised value of the parcel is, May responded, “We don’t have an appraisal on it ’cause we’re not trying to sell it.”

Help At Home Union Steward Marlene Tillery said, “The city has basically told us, without directly telling us no, that they are reserving the portion of land as a development project, when it’s sat vacant for three years.”

“The need for parking right here, right now, is pretty desperate,” Tillery explained. “We have to park two, three, four, five blocks away. We have elders and handicapped that we bring in, and we have to drop them off at the front door, and then we have to drive someplace else to park.”

“We know it’s a challenge,” Montgomery conceded. “We know it’s frustrating to those who are looking for a spot and can’t find one, to those who get a ticket.”

Tillery claims an earlier request for the city to address the problem resulted in the suggestion that businesses relocate if parking is such a problem.

“If you thought that another location would be helpful, we’d be willing,” Montgomery said, alleging the city’s message had been misunderstood. “If another location seemed to make sense, we’d be happy to help you in looking for another location. We’re not trying to get you to move.”

In July, Lafayette Hotel owner LeRoy Jones offered the city $20,000 to purchase the vacant property, which he intended to turn into a parking lot to share with nearby businesses and their customers.

Jones was turned down.

“You won’t let us purchase it and develop it,” Jones accused the city panel, “but you won’t develop it.”

The city’s study, which will last years, is little comfort to those who argue the parking problem in their area needs immediate attention.

“The gentleman (Jones) offered a price,” Swilligan’s Pub owner Reggie Roberson told the panel. “I’m sure it can be negotiated, but it needs to be resolved now.”

“Our mayor is a downtown guy, supposedly,” Roberson added. “This is an issue where he could step up and be a hero.”

The July 17 City Council minutes reflect Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) submitting Jones’ offer to the Finance and Personnel Department, Mayor Morrissey and the Legal Department.

Ald. Mark’s absence at the Jan. 24 meeting didn’t sit well with some.

“We would have appreciated him being here,” Tillery said. “When we invite the City Council, they should have representatives of the City Council, our aldermen and our city leaders here.”

“I try to make all the meetings,” Mark responded apologetically, explaining he had a prior family commitment that night. “I did try and e-mail them back, saying that I apologize, but I would try to get back with them.”

Aug. 14 City Council minutes show Ald. Mark also submitted a letter from accountant Terry Dorman, who has a tax preparation business on the block.

In his letter, Dorman inquired as to proper procedure for purchasing the same vacant lot. The letter was referred to the Legal Department and Steve Ernst, and the matter never saw the light of council chambers again.

In recent months, numerous downtown business owners have spoken during public participation at council meetings, urgently pressing aldermen to address the parking problem.

Downtown parking solutions have not been discussed by the council since.

From the Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2007, issue

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